He was born at King's Sutton, Northamptonshire, where his father was vicar. At the age of fourteen he entered Winchester College, the headmaster at the time being Dr Joseph Warton. In 1781, Bowles left as captain of the school, and went on to Trinity College, Oxford, where he had won a scholarship. Two years later he won the chancellors prize for Latin verse. In 1789 he published, in a very small quarto volume, Fourteen Sonnets, which were received with extraordinary favour, not only by the general public, but by such men as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth. The Sonnets even in form were a revival, a return to an older and purer poetic style, and by their grace of expression, melodious versification, tender tone of feeling and vivid appreciation of the life and beauty of nature, stood out in strong contrast to the elaborated commonplaces which at that time formed the bulk of English poetry. After taking his degree at Oxford, Bowles entered the church, and was appointed in 1792 as vicar of Chicklade in Wiltshire.What I'm doing is reading Sonnets: written chiefly on picturesque spots, during a tour (1789). So here's Sonnet 1.
Bereave me not of these delightful dreamsHere's Bowles' short preface:
Which charm'd my youth; or mid her gay career
Of hope, or when the faintly-paining tear
Sat sad on memory's cheek!----though loftier themes
Await the awaken'd mind, to the high prize
Of wisdom, hardly earn'd with toil and pain,
Aspiring patient; yet on life's wide plain
Cast friendless, where unheard some suffrer cries
Hourly, and oft our road is lone and long,
'Twere not a crime, should we awhile delay
Amid the sunny field; and happier they,
Who, as they wander, woo the charm of song
To cheer their path, till they forget to weep;
And the tired sense is hush'd and sinks to sleep.
The following Trifles were chiefly suggested by some Picturesque Objects which presented themselves to the Author in a Tour to the Northern Parts of this Islands and on the Continent. They were before committed too hastily to the Press; but the favourable Reception which they experienced, has induced him to revise them, and, with the Addition of a few more, to make them less unworthy of the Publick Eye.So: the feeling is certainly there, if a tad too decorously restrained ('faintly-paining tear') for modern tastes, perhaps. But the first thing that strikes me about this sonnet is its Empsonian ambiguity of phrasing. 'hardly earn'd with toil and pain' presumably means 'strenuously earn'd with toil and pain', but flirts with 'barely earned'; the 'patient' of 'Aspiring patient' could be either noun or adverb (presumably it's the latter) and the 'sense' referred to in the last line ('And the tired sense is hush'd and sinks to sleep') could be the senses of the poet, or the singers on the road, or the sense contained in the song, worn out by endless repetition.
It having been said that these Pieces were written in Imitation of the little Poems of Mrs. Smyth, the Author hopes be may be excused adding, that many of them were written prior to Mrs. Smyth's Publication. He is conscious of their great Inferiority to those beautiful and elegant Compositions; but, such as they are, they were certainly written from his own Feelings.
Now, I'm not sure I see that this sort of ambiguity serves the larger thrust of the poem. Indeed it's not immediately obvious what that larger thrust is. The sonnet is addressed 'To A Friend'; it is presumably that friend who is proposing to 'bereave' the speaker of his youthful dreams ('Grow up, Bowles! Concentrate on loftier matters!'). In generic sense, I guess, this is 'pastoral' as opposed to 'epic' poetry; or rural ballads as opposed to scientific and philosophical enquiry. But the same poem that starts with an imperative not to be bereaved ends with a celebration of the ways in which is is good to be bereaved -- to, in other words, be distracted from one's sadness. And the central lines around which the poem hinges -- from the implied urging of the 'friend' to abandon this youthful stuff, to the statement of its existentially analgesic worth -- happens with some lines that are just baffling. 'Unheard some suffrer cries/Hourly'; if he's unheard then how do we know he's suffering? (If a suffrer falls in the forest and nobody's is there to hear him ...). 'Oft our road is lone and long,' -- but you're not lone; you're specifically addressing this poem to a friend.
These semantic tangles seems to me expressive of a deeper uncertainty. The poem itself is genuinely being pulled in two directions: foreward into a grander future, and backwards (the old-fashioned, small-scale sonnet) into a local, rural, sentimental past.